Resistance plans fight against Howard
By Marina Cameron
"The capitalist system, based on riches for the few and poverty for the rest of us, can provide no solution to the crisis", noted a feature report at the 25th National Conference of the socialist youth organisation Resistance, held in Melbourne July 5-7.
"What makes the whole situation so urgent is that the environmental crisis threatens the very survival of humanity. Resistance has a vital role to play in providing leadership for a generation of young people whose living conditions and future are on the rocks."
Lively discussions were held at the conference, attended by 250 delegates and observers. Delegates discussed Resistance's political analysis of international and Australian politics, and set down some clear decisions on Resistance's own campaign perspectives and tasks in building a socialist youth organisation.
Supporting international emerging and the development of socialist forces has been a part of Resistance's politics since its beginnings in the campaign against the Vietnam War. The international political situation was a topic of much discussion at the conference.
Pressed by economic downturn since the 1970s, capitalist governments worldwide are pursuing an agenda of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and breaking down trade barriers in the search for greater profits. These neo-liberal policies have involved a generalised attempt to drive down wages and working conditions and wipe out past gains of the workers movement, including social welfare provisions. Tax breaks and government subsidies to business are justified in terms of creating jobs which never arrive.
The conference noted the growing opposition to this neo-liberal austerity drive, from the massive strikes in France in November and December to the struggles of workers and students in the Philippines against the Ramos government.
These developments were discussed enthusiastically by the conference. Despite the election of the Howard government, marking the arrival of a bolder form of neo-liberalism in Australia, struggles such as these show that resistance is possible as well as necessary.
Unlike the ALP's attempts to maintain some sort of "consensus" as it cut public services and jobs, the Coalition government plans a frontal attack on the living standards of working people "justified" by the need for "international competitiveness" — helping a minority to become richer while the rest of us get poorer.
Resistance noted the need for the left internationally to clarify its politics and engage in the fights back, and set out its own challenges in the fight against imperialism and the neo-liberal offensive in Australia. The campaigns in solidarity with the struggles for freedom in East Timor and democracy in Indonesia were reaffirmed as priorities as well as fighting the role of Australian big business in the Asia Pacific region.
Projections for campaigning centred on Resistance's support for the National Day of Action on August 25 to demand an end to Australia's recognition of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor.
Fighting the Liberals
The conference made a sober assessment of the impact of the planned cuts of the Howard government to education, health and welfare, as well as its attacks on trade unions and student unions to limit opposition. However, the tone of the conference was high-spirited, with discussion focusing on the possibilities of building campaigns around these issues, particularly amongst young people.
Young people will be among those hit hardest. Universities will face a cut to operating grants of 2-10%. This is likely to be offset through large increases to HECS, an increase in the repayment rate and the replacement of Austudy with a loans scheme.
The Liberals are set to continue where the ALP left off: cutting public funding to education, forcing students to pay for their education and structuring education to the needs of business.
There has already been a strong response to the cuts, with 30,000 students rallying alongside staff at the end of May. Resistance has been heavily involved in this campaign, supporting the setting up of campus organising groups and the formation of alliances with SRCs, the National Tertiary Education and Industry Union and the National Union of Students to further the campaign.
The Austudy changes are likely to abolish Austudy for secondary students, putting the burden back onto individual families and forcing more young people into part-time work. Because of this, the conference noted the possibilities for involving high school students in the campaign against education cuts.
With current rates of unemployment, working is not always an option for young people. If they do find work, it is likely to be insecure, temporary, casual and badly paid. The areas in which most young people work and the generally low rates of unionisation amongst young people also make it hard for these workers to organise for better conditions.
New government proposals would reduce the wages of apprentices dramatically, allowing employers to pay only for the days that apprentices work and not those spent in training or at TAFE colleges. These changes clearly show that real job creation and access to education and training are not the government's priorities. Apprenticeship schemes are really about the needs of business. Young people are used as cheap labour, in the guise of training for secure, permanent jobs that don't exist.
Cuts to unemployment benefits and the Young Homeless Allowance mean that options for young people are increasingly stark.
The conference identified campaigns against cuts to university funding, Austudy and youth wages as key areas for Resistance. Organising young people in the workplace and on TAFE colleges were also important areas of discussion.
All these campaigns will draw together into actions around the federal budget. Students and university staff are planning a national day of action on August 7. Resistance members also discussed building towards actions by trade unionists on August 19, with a cavalcade to Canberra being organised alongside rallies in many cities.
Battle of ideas
Combating the renewed right-wing ideological push of the Howard government was identified as a key task for Resistance members.
The Liberals' push to affirm the family as the primary social unit is aimed at taking the burden of social and welfare functions off the government and at justifying more cuts to women's services. The racist policies of the government aimed at migrants and Aboriginal land rights were also discussed.
Hints by the government that Aboriginal people, migrants or women are to blame for taking jobs, creates more ideological space for far-right groups to push their ideas. In a climate of insecurity for ordinary people, there is the potential for these arguments to take more of a hold in the general population. Resistance members identified the need to provide an alternative leadership with socialist solutions.
On July 8, John Howard spoke at the annual conference of the Australian Liberal Students Federation, where he outlined plans to cut education funding and withdraw over $8 million in student union funding. Howard called on Liberal students to "fight the battle of ideas" on campus and be the "ideological warriors" of economic rationalism.
Resistance members discussed taking up this battle in campaigns, on campus, at high school, on the streets and in the workplace. Resistance reaffirmed that its primary tool in this battle is Green Left Weekly. A key focus was winning more young people to a socialist perspective and the need for activity against the injustices of the system.
Fighting for socialism
Jo Brown, one of the conference organisers, told Green Left Weekly, "This year's Resistance conference was an important one. In the face of an international drive towards neo-liberalism and the offensive of the new Liberal government here, many people are withdrawing from the idea of fundamental social change. Resistance clearly reaffirmed the need to struggle against the system and had some good, concrete discussion about how to push struggles forward here and internationally.
Brown pointed out that young people are constantly discouraged from taking action. "We are told that the way the world works is the only way. We are told that in Australia 'we' are the lucky country and we should stop arguing for freedom and democracy in the Asia Pacific region because that is where 'our' economic future lies and we will all benefit in the long run.
"Some people are obviously 'luckier' and benefit more than others. Young people in particular, who want to be able to expect some sort of future, are realising that things really cannot continue as they are.
"Resistance is at the centre of the fight back amongst young people, as the largest socialist youth organisation in Australia. As the struggles against the government grow, more young people will be won to the idea of fighting for a new future with Resistance."